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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Training zones - 3 may be enough

Training is a funny thing.  At once, it's a process that's really complex and extraordinarily simple all at the same time.  It's very difficult to take an athlete and a timeline to a given race, and make everything go well so that they perform at their best at that race, but at the heart of the process is a very simple equation:

Stress + Rest = Fitness.  And repeat.

This equation represents the building blocks of training, but it's assembling those blocks where the difficulty comes in.  Some of the blocks will be bigger, some smaller, and orienting them so that an athlete's weaknesses are worked on -- all the while bringing their fitness along in a way that is specific to the race they plan on doing, takes time and experience.

Training zones, whether they relate to heart rate or power (on the bike) are the fundamental part of the building blocks....of that rudimentary (stress + rest = fitness) equation, and, again, putting an athlete through these zones at particular times, on particular days, for particular durations, is where the complexity lies.

I've noticed from working with my athletes that have come from another coach to me that many coaches don't approach it this way....they treat the organizing of workouts as a very simple, broad process -- training periods are very long, and poorly defined at times, but then they inject complexity into it by creating a whole bunch of training zones.  I've seen as many as twelve but often you'll see them broken down into 6 or more levels, like:

Recovery: the intensity to train at for active recovery
Zone 1: Optimum fat usage
Zone 2: Endurance
Zone 3: Tempo
Zone 4: Threshold
Zone 5: Anaerobic fitness

Sometimes coaches will break the zones down further so that there are seven, eight, or nine distinct levels.  Way too much, in my opinion, and there is a lot of overlap even with 6 zones -- really, how much difference in intensity is the "Recovery" zone versus your intensity on your first 4 hour "Endurance" zone ride?

Athletes, left to their own devices, almost always train too  much at one given intensity -- they gravitate toward "the middle".  "The middle" is seductive that way because it doesn't hurt that much but we still feel like we're working hard and getting something done.  Problem is this virtual no-man's-land of training is generally a waste of your time if you're training to get faster and/or more efficient on your bike.  Why?  Because "the middle" isn't hard enough to make you faster, but it's just intense enough to require some recovery time.

When I coach a cyclist, especially one who has come to me from a training program heavily relying on "the middle" (which is most athletes), when we first start, I exaggerate their training zones by giving them only three zones they can work in:

1. Recovery/Easy
2.  Threshold
3. Super-duper hard

Or something along those lines.   In my opinion when you create more than 5 zones there is tremendous overlap with them and it really blurs the lines as far as the day to day training goes.  The zones should be simplified which can lead to greater specificity in the organization of the day to day training periods.  Organizing those workouts around three or four zones allows you to be very clear and focused on what EXACTLY you're working on that day, or that week.  It also keeps you out of the middle compared to the 6+ zone method, since as you might imagine all those extra zones come from breaking up the "middle" and the recovery/easy zones into smaller and more obscure parts.

The "recovery/easy" level is differentiated only by the duration of a given ride -- an "easy" ride could be 3 hours long, while a "recovery" ride could be nearly the same intensity, but only 45 minutes to an hour long.  As we get farther into the training, then I'll often break up the "Recovery/Easy" into two separate pieces, but I don't add in anything else between those zones and threshold since I want my athletes to stay out of that barely sub-threshold zone with extreme prejudice.  Limiting their options in this way really makes an athlete realize that every day has a purpose....every day is meant to do SOMETHING. 

The only "somethings" we focus on early in the program is either recovering, building some aerobic baseline (both are "Recovery/Easy"), working on overall efficiency at threshold ("threshold"), or bumping up efficiency at the very maximal ranges of gross power and strength ("Super-duper hard"), and we're rarely trying to work on more than two or perhaps three of these things on any given training period.

Incidentally, you may ask what about the "super duper hard" zone?  Where is that?  In most of my training plans I don't really set specific heart rates or powers for this (sounds strange, I know).  The reason I don't is that your intensity on these days is very easy to find, even without a heart rate monitor or a powermeter (although the powermeter can provide a useful "carrot" during them.  The intervals on these days, especially early on in the program, are only between 30 seconds and 2 minutes long each and you may do anywhere from 6-20 of them depending on the day.  Instructions?  Go as hard as you can for one minute, rest during the given recovery or "off" time, and then do it again, and again, and again.  You have to keep in the back of your head that you have six, or eight, or twelve of them total to do, but you are literally just riding as hard as you can.  You can do this without any specialized equipment (unlike "threshold" workouts, where it can be really useful to have a heart rate monitor or powermeter or both to keep you right on the razor's edge of your threshold zone), although as I mentioned a powermeter can provide a great carrot since you can see what your power is on the first interval and try to stay as close to that for the duration of the intervals.  If you can't hold that power and you drop off precipitously then you know you overshot and that will help you on the next day of intervals.

Another reason I simplify zones, other than to re-train a client's idea of what it means to train every day is because I don't believe in bottom-up physiology -- namely I don't believe you can get faster or more efficient at higher levels of exertion (like at your anaerobic threshold) by training slow and easy all the time in the "aerobic range".  I believe, especially for the time-strapped athlete, your time is best spent with a brief dose of very difficult intervals on some days followed by adequate rest, interspersed at different times with long endurance days (if your preferred events require that).

If your goal is to race or even to just be more efficient in your local century or group ride, if you spend all your training time adhering to the lower training zones of the aerobic training idea  you WILL get more efficient.....but only at that slow pace.  If the pace picks up at a race or a climb steepens on a tour you'll find yourself struggling to maintain and quickly running out of gas.

Training at these higher intensities is incredibly important, even if you don't plan to race because getting more efficient at higher intensities DOES make you more efficient at all the intensities below that -- meaning there IS such a thing as trickle-down physiology.

This is especially useful for an athlete that has a lot of demands on their time.  Those of us that work and have families, etc don't have time to put in 20 hours of base work in a week.  I know personally, I need to get a lot of bang for my buck, so even if I'm training for a marathon, I rarely have time to run more than 35 or 40 miles in a week.  I use a lot of shorter, faster workouts (especially on the track) in order to bridge the gap.  In my experience, personal and with clients, a 75-minute workout with a couple healthy blocks of intervals is worth closer to 120 minutes in a lot of situations.

So keep it simple.....train hard.....then rest hard....and repeat.  Whether you're riding in the local Tuesday-night ride or running an ultra-marathon, training for it doesn't have to be incredibly difficult (but I'd always encourage you to seek help from a skilled coach).

happy riding (and running) 


  1. As a dad of a 2 and 5 year old, my training/play time is very limited so this is great. I have found that I'm one of those that ride in the middle (doesn't hurt that much but not really pegging it either). I started using your 3 zones in the last week and I'm finding myself more tired so I think this is working. Either way it has improved the quality of my rides.

  2. Just don't forget that there are two necessary ingredients -- Stress + Recovery. I know how it is (2 yr old and 7 yr old here) and I have to remind myself that sometimes my days "off" the bike/trail aren't really full rest. Sometimes I need to have two back to back hard days (I really like to use block training like that), then a day off (day 3 - where I'm usually running the boys around - not exactly sitting around with my feet up letting my legs recover), then a short easy ride day (day 4), then on the fifth day of the cycle I can do another hard day. Makes sense?